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A sometime rancher, lasso expert and record label owner, the star of 24 has taken on his most creatively risky project but its not so different from acting

Never mind that Down in a Hole, the debut album one of country musics newest artists is releasing later this summer, is the product of a traditionalists love of the genres hard-bitten, gravelly voiced storytellers. Or that the singer-songwriter behind it has penned a set of tunes about hard living and miles travelled that sound perfect for cheap honky-tonks and maybe even the purists in the audience at the Grand Ole Opry.

When the craftsman is Kiefer Sutherland, some things have to be taken on board. Like the critics who will see this as a vanity project: the idea that the 49-year-old actor can successfully refashion himself as a bona fide country troubadour. Or the possibility that some of the fans who come to his shows hes been on the road playing a string of intimate dates in the US and Canada in support of the forthcoming album – wont be able to help seeing Jack Bauer in a cowboy hat staring back at them from the stage.

Even so, this is the creative leap the TV and film star has decided to take, reintroducing himself to fans with a guitar slung around him and belting out throwback country-style tunes in an unpolished voice that gets the job done. That random audience members at times have proclaimed their fandom of Sutherlands fictional terrorism-fighting agent from the crowd, some even yelling out requests for him to deliver Bauers signature damn it catchphrase, well, thats just another indication this is a singular kind of country act.

Weve played close to 100 dates in the States so far, and Ive always made a kind of joke about it, Sutherland tells the Guardian. If you want to take our show and make a comparison, its like a Nascar race. Some people go hoping they get to see a crash. Our job is to give them a good race.

Im aware of the stigma attached to actor-musicians, he adds. I promise you, every time I hear someone talk about an actor doing this, my eyes roll in the back of my head, too. For me, though, this is something that is absolutely imperative to what I want to do with the rest of my life.

Sutherland clarifies that he is not suggesting that he will say goodbye to the TV shows and films where his grizzled tough guy with a low, menacing purr of a voice is so intrinsic to shows such as 24 and ABCs Designated Survivor. In the latter, a new political drama hitting screens this fall, Sutherland stars as a low-ranking cabinet member who becomes the president after a crippling attack.

Sutherland is also interviewed in AMCs new documentary series The American West, which chronicles the sweeping industrialization of the late 1800s as well as larger-than-life characters such as Wyatt Earp and Jesse James.

Sutherland
Sutherland started a record label 20 years ago. Photograph: Beth Elliott

The through-line that Sutherland says links all those projects, along with his new identity as a touring country singer and fledgling recording artist, is his love of storytelling. Which is why from his noodling around on a guitar that stretches back years and his longtime love of a particular brand of country songwriting think Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson has emerged a surprising new identity that represents perhaps his most creatively risky yet personally satisfying project yet.

Its also one that puts him in the company of actors such as Ed Helms, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner and others whove dabbled in music to various degrees and with varying degrees of success after making it in acting.

I got into country music in the early 90s, says Sutherland. At the time, he was something of a competitive cowboy on the United States Team Roping Championships circuit for a time, and he also ran a ranch for almost a decade.

I was roping on a competitive level, and I was travelling around in a pickup truck with really world-class cowboys, and I started listening to a lot of country music, because thats what they were playing on the radio, Sutherland says. Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, all of those guys with the first-person narratives who took on those characters. That was the same thing that appeals to me about acting. It was the first-person narrative thing that country does that you dont really find in rocknroll.

Sutherland remembers playing the guitar as a teenager. He increasingly bottled up the hobby, though, the more he met people such as his best friend and music partner Jude Cole, a songwriter and producer – whom he considered real instrumentalists.

But his interest in music remained. And in 2002, Sutherland and Cole launched a small record label called Ironworks to record and distribute music by local musicians. Sutherland eventually moved on, but something about being around young, hungry bands lingered, and by 2015, he was playing his own compositions to Cole.

Sutherlands thought had been to record the songs as demos for other artists to use. Cole, however, thought Sutherland ought to keep them for himself. They wrote some songs together, and eventually there were enough for an album.

A flurry of activity followed. They got an album in the can. Sutherland took to the road with a band, and earlier this year he was a presenter at the 51st Academy of Country Music awards show in Las Vegas. Eventually, the title track from Sutherlands album, Not Enough Whiskey, was released in April. The video opens with a shot of Sutherlands tattooed arm switching off a radio as a steel guitar sets the mood and Sutherland gets dressed, eventually taking a swig of the titular liquor.

Whether its good or bad, Sutherland says hes not bothered by the critical reception. Its gotten to the point, now that Ive done these songs and an album, its like, if somebody wants to be nasty, go ahead, Sutherland says. I dont care. Thats probably why I didnt put out any music 30 years ago. I wasnt prepared to say I dont care. I have to be honest, the audiences have been phenomenal. The experience has been amazing. But I get it. And its really important to me for anyone to understand Im not trying to sell a million records or sell out stadiums.

Its about playing to 200, 300 people a night and telling a story. The ability to do that has changed how I want to approach acting and everything else. It really does live in the same place for me, and its not something I have any intention of letting go.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/jun/28/kiefer-sutherland-country-music-acting-interview